Balancing the Good Bits

- by E. C. Ambrose

One of the most common mistakes I find in books by new authors is the tendency to put in the wrong things:  they spend pages on things that should be left out, then jump right over the things that should be included.  The result is a work that feels unbalanced, giving weight to stuff the reader doesn’t care about, and depriving the reader of the good stuff.  What kind of stuff?  I’m glad you asked!

A great science fiction writer (I think it was Allen Steele) said that you should leave out the things that readers skip.  Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list.

Stuff to leave out:

–dialog or exposition that summarizes a scene the reader has already witnessed: instead, try, “Joe filled them in on what had happened the night before.”

–lengthy scientific and technological explanations: remember, the more detail you deliver, the more chances for your scientifically-minded reader to nitpick, and the more likely your non-scientific reader will go to sleep

–inner monologues that explain things about the character that the author has just shown

–characters making small talk

–journies on which nothing interesting happens:  it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Ten days later, worn out from riding, they arrived at the castle.”

–backstory that does not inform the plot

–people waking up or going to bed, unless something exciting causes these things to occur (waking up turned into a giant bug, yes.  going to bed with an alien, yes)

–lectures by characters to other characters (or to the reader):  just give us the high points

What to Put In

–important decisions made by a viewpoint character

–reunions between parted friends or lovers

–battles in which your protagonist is injured or takes an important action

–the image or moment implied by the trajectory of the protagonist at the start of the book: if the protagonist is doing everything in service to her family, then the closure for the book should be a reference to her family

–a scene where your protagonist has the chance to excel at his or her striking talent, even if it’s not immediately plot-relevant (and why would you give your protagonist an interesting talent if it’s not plot-relevant?  Can it serve you well in any case?)

Both lists seem pretty obvious when I spell it out like this, and yet I have read a number of published novels lately that make these very errors–they pile on the tedious, uneccessary stuff, then leave out the things that the reader would have really enjoyed.  So, next time you are planning a book, or revising one, keep Steele’s dictum in mind:  leave out the things that readers skip–and give them more of the good stuff they’ll be looking forward to.


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